La Bête Humaine (1890)


Was almost expecting Hardy natural rhythms, Eliotian chorographic social web, tragic Dickensian inequalities. Some of the latter two, but this is a wholly industrial novel, and very gothic: much more in the line of Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (see the self-restraining Jacques “shut up like a monk in his cell”) and probably Dr Jekyll.

Intro (Leonard Tancock) pointed out that Zola stretches it a bit by making everyone a murderer, and indeed his world is somewhat of a Victorian-era Ystad. Intro suggested that there was therefore interest in the taxonomy of vices and afflictions; the immediately juxtaposed Roubaud (driven to domestic violence through jealousy and acquired brutality after a history of manual labour) and Jacques (driven to sexual violence through a hereditary misogynistic instinct) provide revealing comparisons as the stories diverge (see also the Roubauds’ Poe-esque paranoia about the immured loot vs. Misard’s scrabbling easter egg hunt for an ill-gotten inheritance). Influenced by Lombroso, (yet not without equivocation, as in the condemnation of Cabuche, whose “heavy face and low brow” dooms him as a misidentified brute) Zola signals the post-Dickensian disjunct between social oppression and man’s inherent violence, where the former creates tragically unnecessary criminals but the latter reveals our innate criminality.

The threat of violence is periodically deflated by its indulgence: there is more terror in “he was flushing and trying to control his big, rough hands. He was quivering and could have crushed her to death” than the resultant beating, which scans today as often merely unpleasant and distressing. Lewis mastered this, trapping us inside the monk’s mind and delaying the horrific release until a dreadful consummation. Here Jacques’ outbursts are more gripping than Roubaud’s because of his hesitances and the coincidences that occasionally thwart him. That said, Z’s train track pile-up is pretty ghastly, a successful upping of the ante that hauntingly anticipates the mechanical destruction of the War.

There is a romantic thunder to the grand image of the railway as modernity:

It was like a huge body, a gigantic creature lying across the land with its head in Paris and its joints all along the line, limbs spreading out into branch lines, feet and hands at Le Havre and other terminal lines. On and on it went, soulless and triumphant, on to the future with mathematical straightness and deliberate ignorance of the rest of human life on either side, unseen but always tenaciously alive – eternal passion and eternal crime.

A nice ambiguity to Zola’s optimism and positivism, and a more general revision of notions of progress since the Revolution. This is really a central passage and should probably be made more of.

Very interesting in conjunction with Butler on mechanics and evolution; see engine Lisson’s “soul, the mystery in creation; the something that the chances of hammering bestows on the metal that the knack of the fitter gives to the parts – the personality of the machine, its life.” Definitely worth returning to in an AI era. Corollary: the mechanics of organism – “…death in three hiccuping gasps, like the spring of a clock breaking.”

All very swashbuckling and sensational, and probably a great laugh in 1890. But often a bit much today; just that too-frequent overbalancing: “they wept together, conscious of the blind forces of life weighting down on them, life which consists of struggle and death.” (cartoon Kierkegaard) Too many images of Lisson as first an obedient wife, second an ageing one. Too many murderers, too many “beast withins”s. Almost a decorum of moderation in murdering: “she was quite cracked, with the weirdest ideas… So many murders in one go, a whole crowd in one bloodbath! What a woman!”

Also, the women, especially Séverine, are often simply rubbish. After all she’s been through, purely as an attempt to set up a fatalistic power dynamic with Jacques: “To make an end of it and then start afresh was all she wanted, being a woman made for love and unconcerned with anything else, submissive to man, wholly belonging to the man who possessed her and heartless towards the other whom she had never wanted.” Yes a nice reversal of the femme fatale but at the cost of any agency or personality. This unfortunately rubs out any suggestion of criticism of violent male possessiveness from Zola, as in Jacques perspective at the first suggestion of an affair:

He was deeply touched by this way of finding peace by confessing to him without admitting anything; it was a sign of the deepest affection. She was so confiding, so vulnerable, with her soft, periwinkle-blue eyes! She seemed to him so womanly, belonging entirely to man and always ready to submit to him for the sake of happiness! … With other women he had not been able to touch their flesh without feeling the urge to dig into it with an abominable lust for slaughter. Could he really love this one and not kill her?

Her passivity seems the cause of his restraint, but even that will not save her. This is pretty hilarious. People give Dickens stick for his heroines!

Overall a little rich and ridiculous but pressing on contemporary injustices and still good fun today.